Leftover Pain Pills Contribute to Opioid Epidemic, Study Finds

By May Wilkerson 06/15/16

Almost half the people surveyed didn’t know how to safely store their medications at home, out of reach of children, family members or visitors.

Leftover Pain Pills Contribute to Opioid Epidemic, Study Finds

When it comes to prescription painkillers, a few leftover pills can cause a lot of problems.

Since 1999, more than 165,000 people have died from opioid-related overdoses, according to the CDC. The problem initially stemmed from doctors overprescribing painkillers like methadone, oxycodone and hydrocodone. But not only are patients being prescribed these drugs too liberally, they also may be getting more of the medications than they actually need, a new study finds. And these leftover medications increase the potential for abuse, as evidenced by the current opioid crisis.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, found that as many as six in 10 patients prescribed painkillers had more pills than they needed. The researchers surveyed 1,032 American adults who had used prescription painkillers in the past year. About half of the participants were no longer taking the meds, but 60% said they had pills leftover. And among those with leftover pills, 61.3% said they were holding onto them for the future, suggesting a possibility of later misuse and/or abuse.

“These painkillers are much riskier than has been understood and the volume of prescribing and use has contributed to an opioid epidemic in this country,” said study lead Alene Kennedy-Hendricks, an assistant scientist in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s not clear why so many of our survey respondents reported having leftover medication but it could be that they were prescribed more medication than they needed.”

The study also found that almost half the people surveyed didn’t know how to safely store their medications at home, out of reach of children, family members and visitors. And most didn’t know how to safely dispose of these medications either. Less than 7% of those surveyed had participated in prescription “take back” programs across the country, which allow patients to return leftover pills to pharmacies or law enforcement.

What may be the biggest problem with leftover pills is that patients will often pass them along to friends or acquaintances, which can lead to others getting hooked. In the study, one in five participants said they had shared their medications with someone else.

Ultimately, the researchers said there needs to be a new approach to how doctors prescribe painkillers. To help curb abuse and addiction, they will have to both cut back on overprescribing as well as educate patients on how to safely store their medications and properly dispose of their leftovers, and discourage them from sharing their meds. 

“We’re at a watershed moment,” said senior author Colleen Barry, co-director of the Center for Mental Health and Addiction Policy Research at the Bloomberg School. “Until recently, we have treated these medications like they’re not dangerous. But the public, the medical community and policymakers are now beginning to understand that these are dangerous medications and need to be treated as such. If we don’t change our approach, we are going to continue to see the epidemic grow.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.